Friday, January 29, 2010

Ssshhh! The library is speaking to you

Photo by Ozyman

The last time I was in a college campus library, I had pimply skin, 18 layers of anti-winter gear, and a paper to write.

Fast-forward five (five!) years to today, as I sit once more in a college library, this time with clearer skin, only two layers on, and a blog post to write. Fella is upstairs in an 'optional'-but-really-required lecture, so I'm treating this learning hub as adult day care.

As I sit here staring up at the skylights, I think, "Why don't I come to libraries more often?" The system was really onto something when it decided all patrons should be quiet when they're here. I find it remarkable that this simple rule -- no speaking -- is so universally acknowledged, respected, and obeyed.

I don't think it's from fear of librarians' wrath, either. It's part of the unbreakable library code: Be silent for others to find silence within yourself.

After all, libraries are places where you accomplish things. Did you come hear to read? Then read. Study? Then study. Write? Then write. You arrive with a goal, you leave with a product. The quiet gives you space to do that.

Library quiet is also distinctive in that it doesn't necessarily equal "peaceful." Concentration pulsates here. People come and go with purpose. You can feel the stress ebb and flow. This heightened tension only makes the code more inviolable.

To break it, then, is unforgivable. Imagine if I screamed right now for no reason. The librarian would scold me for sure. But the other patrons whose trains of thought I derailed would inflict much worse with their glares and grimaces. The energy in the room would shift from trust, to hurt, to anger. And just as I disrupted their needed silence, they would ruin mine.

So people who want soothing should visit the ocean in the early morning. Those who want to contemplate should sit in a cathedral pew on a weekday afternoon. But people who want unspoken expectations to motivate them ... they should set up shop among the shelves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to put the brakes on a writing slump

Lethargy mixed with frustration on top of guilt. When this potent combo builds up inside writers' heads, it signals the enemy of all creativity: the writing slump.

You know the feeling. It derails your best intentions "to just sit down and write." You start losing hope you'll ever make it in this business. Worse, you make excuses or self-flagellate or ignore the problem altogether, none of which are remotely useful techniques for restoring your get-up-and-go for words.

I know the feeling because I'm on the downslide too. After a productive burst last weekend, I'm back to believing I can't sustain the momentum. But, since it's best to catch these downturns early, I turned to some wise advice I heard from a published author a few months ago.

Patricia Reilly Giff is the acclaimed author of Pictures of Hollis Woods, Lily's Crossing, and other children's and young adult books. She has been writing for over 20 years. Here are her snippets of advice and words of comfort to encourage aspiring writers, and help them stop the slump in mid-ride.

Writing Technique

1. Having story issues? Check to see if you have a person, a place, and a problem.

2. When looking at the problem in the story, consider: Will it make me worry for the whole book?

3. "All you have to do in a book is give everyone hope."

Sitting Down to Write

4. Give yourself 30 minutes a day. The cumulative effect is invigorating.

5. The first year of writing was 'really hard' for her. Sometimes, it takes a while to get into a groove.

6. Writing and stories are all about emotion for her. She'd picture 'softies with tears in their eyes' when she sat down to work.

Words of Wisdom

7. Stay up-to-date on what's new in your genre. What other books and authors are circulating?

8. When we write, we pull on a 'reservoir of memory' we change slightly.

9. "One of the loveliest reasons to write is to capture the past."

And, A Funny Story to Help Relax You

10. When Giff visits classrooms, she encourages students to interrupt her at any point with questions. At one point during a visit to a kindergarten class, a little girl waved her hand.

"Yes honey, what's your question?" Giff asked.

"I have a cat," the little girl replied.

Then the little boy next to her said, "Good question!"


So, I guess what I'm trying to tell you is ... relax. Take a deep breath, ask yourself some good questions (with or without cat), and concentrate on putting one hand over the other. Eventually, what went down will come up -- and bring you with it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Prayer #98: Tweethology

Prayers in 140 characters or less.

Prayer #98: Tweethology

Short on time. Long on worry. Any recommendations on how to extend one and cut the other? Thanks for the slice-and-splice advice.

@God: Tried to message you, but You don't seem to be following me. I'm a little confused ... didn't You follow me first?

The Bible, Twitter-style (via @God): Love me. Love each other. Know I love you. Tell others I love you. Sensing a theme?

The early prophets had sandals and conviction. I have social media and doubts. Different tools, but I hope the same results.

@God: You're my lifeline, my lifeguard, my lifesaver. Let me never then doubt You're w/ me for life, in life, after life. Amen.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Five memorable meals and what they taught me

My coworkers and I have this little tradition going called the Culinary Club, where we rotate hosting each month and teach the others how to cook our best dishes. Our core competencies cover Italian, Indian, and Cajun, with a healthy dose of "let's make something new" bravura to keep it interesting.

But the real intent of the evening is not the wine (though divine) and not the free homecooked meal (though appreciated). The club is a collective memory in the making, a standing reminder of all the good food that got us to this point and all the good cooking that will sustain us going forward.

We got to talking about this very idea last night, about how even if you're not an avowed foodie, meals can leave mile markers in your life. Which started me down my own epicurean memory lane with five distinct pit stops.

Some center of the food. Others center on the people. But they are all delicious. And I bet you have some to share too ...

1. "Wait, There's More?" -- Florence

I didn't know the meaning of feast before I ate this meal. It was my family's first night in Florence. All we knew was that "you have to eat at Il Latini," according to my friend Michael. So we made reservations, bypassed the line stretching around the block, and sat in a section of long wooden tables, surrounded by other diners.

What transpired was an endless banquet (I think we counted 14 courses). We didn't even order anything; the waiters just started bringing out food. When we thought we could eat no more, a new aroma or sauce enticed us to make room. (The gallon of wine we chugged also helped.)

Night fell outside, the din in the room increased, and pretty soon we were part of a rollicking, boisterous food extravaganza with everyone soused out of their mind and scarfing down food like it was their last chance.

The dish I remember best: white beans in a light marinara sauce. That's it. Nothing fancy. But oh, the way it smelled! Like rosemary and garlic and home. I could eat that dish for the rest of my life and never be lonely again.

2. Muffaletta Me At It -- New Orleans

I was helping Habitat for Humanity build homes in Slidell, La., the spring of my junior year of college. We took Friday off to cruise New Orleans and see what all the fuss was about. My group and I ended up at this little hole-in-the-wall I can't recall the name of, not too far from St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter.

I ordered a muffaletta. I'd never had one before. And I don't think I'll ever recapture the experience again, unless I find a way to approximate the level of crack in that olive mix. Plus, I don't practice voodoo or play jazz, and I'm sure both were required to concoct those unique flavors.

I ate the whole damn thing. By myself.

3. You Say Frittata, I Say Jumbata -- Syracuse, NY

Syracuse is not known for its cuisine, just its Orangemen. So I relied on my own knowledge and meager food budget to feed myself through college. Eventually, many friends came to rely on me too, because I was one of the few folks who regularly food shopped and remembered to buy such exotic items as "eggs."

No surprise then, that six hungry college boys -- all friends from church -- arrived at my kitchen table one late night, lured by the promise of a homemade frittata. I delivered on that promise too, by dumping the entire contents of my fridge into one pan and serving it with great enthusiasm.

A dozen and a half eggs, three veggies, 2 kinds of cheese, and some questionable meat later, I learned that watching people relish a meal I made for them was a sure recipe for my future happiness. I also learned that the way to men's hearts is not only through their stomach, but through their wallets too.

4. Spoonfeeding Sans Spoon -- somewhere on a highway in the snow

My boyfriend at the time and I had just left visiting his parents to make the four-hour drive back to school. It was already late when we left. Then a snowstorm hit. We were in the car so long we got hungry again.

Luckily, we had leftover chicken parmigiana in a doggy bag from the restaurant we'd just departed ... but no utensils. So while he gripped the wheel and watched the road, I tore apart the chicken with my hands and fed it to him sideways, all the while thinking that desperate times call for hilarious measures.

I'm pleased to report we made it home in one piece with nary a sauce stain.

5. "You Have Something In Your Teeth ..." -- Washington D.C.

I was on my first job interview in DC with a tight timeframe, seeing as I was traveling round-trip from Philly in one day. Yet meetings at my potential employer's were delayed. I had no lunch. So they sent me over to the Daily Grill with orders to eat a nice meal and bring the receipt back.

It had started to snow outside. The restaurant was packed with the lunch crowd. I sat by myself in my big-girl business suit. I ordered tomato soup and salad, even though they carried great risk of a) staining my outfit and b) getting stuck in my teeth.

I ate it slowly, watching the snow fall and listening to DC natives chatter. I pictured myself living here (in DC, not in the Daily Grill). By the time I finished, I felt fortified. I could see myself here. I wanted to be here.

So I went back to the office and landed the job. But only after checking my teeth for spinach.

What's your most memorable meal, and why?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Prayer #97: Baffle

Joy and suffering is how God puts His glory on display. -- pastor at Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C.

Prayer #97: Baffle

Our world and its dramas are baffling. We tackle them anyway, with worship, science, policy, rescue and retribution and reconciliation. Yet all these efforts only chip away at explaining an infinite, mysterious God.

Still, He takes time to whisper to us in the din. He visits at dinner. He sits next to us in class and shares a pole on the subway. He explains himself for us.

How generous of our unfathomable God, we say, to invite and relish intimacy. Then doubt creeps in. Is our relationship now too vernacular? Too common?


God makes His extraordinary nature ordinary so we might be extraordinary in His name. It's an enormous, daunting, delirious gift.

But we must tackle it anyway, and use it in spite of our weaker nature. For in this way, we can penetrate God's mystery, and help achieve baffling joy in the midst of pain.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crisis-once-removed: A personal reflection on the Haiti earthquake

I remember where I was for Hurricane Katrina and the South Asia tsunami. I will remember where I was for the Haiti earthquake too, though for quite different reasons. This time, I am working at a UN-affiliated organization. And I will remember what it feels like when a colossal system beats with one heart as one of its own collapses.

The news clips exude grief, but they also show resilience. The elaborate UN system -- the same byzantine body often caught up in process and posturing -- is built for this precise challenge.

No wonder the separate agencies and partners didn't blink when the news broke. Instead, they deployed. And under one coordinated umbrella, they are covering food, safe water, sanitation, medicine, telecommunications, and much more for the Haitian community.

Cut to me in my cubicle, many hundreds of miles from the epicenter, doing little more than watching the news. There I'm writing about how UN staffers who survived the quake carry on with their mission, even with the knowledge that they might pull the bodies of their friends and colleagues from the rubble.

I stop.

I think.

Would I have the strength to save a country? A city? My coworker?

I can't (won't?) answer. Because answering forces me to acknowledge that I'm not as brave as I like to think I am.

I'll remember that about the Haiti earthquake too. About how one situation captured the truest essence of a complex model by bringing its people to light.

My career will likely never hold such import. Thank God the peacekeepers' work does.


Honor the commitment of all the men and women delivering aid to Haiti right now. Donate to the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, and help the UN help in time.

[Note: This post reflects my personal opinions only, and not the views of my employer.]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prayer #96: To-Don't

Prayer #96: To-Don't

Clean bedroom
Clean kitchen
Clean mind
Organize desk
Organize email
Organize thoughts
Figure out rent
Figure out food
Figure out purpose
Hit the gym
Hit the listings
Hit my forehead
File taxes
File nails
File down
Call Mom
Call Dad
Call help
Buy milk
Buy tickets
Buy time
Plan party
Plan trip
Plan life


Saturday, January 09, 2010

Word on the street: To-do List

The scene: The ever irascible Pop-Pop DePaul is having a medical procedure done in a few weeks. His son Lou is preparing to stay overnight at Pop-Pop's house that night to make sure he's ok.

Pop-Pop: I'm cleaning your room, ya know. So you can have a nice stay.

Lou: Umm... that's not for another three weeks. You know that, right?

Pop-Pop: Of course I know that! I'm cleaning one room at a time! I'm too busy to clean the whole house at once! I've got the lawnmower that needs a new motor. My inside Christmas decorations need to go up. Today I was out shoppin' all day.

Lou: I'm staying in the other room anyway. The one with the big bed.

Pop-Pop: Well! Good thing you told me now! I may have left that room until after you came! Well, what else do you need? Breakfast in bed? I'll charge ya, ya know. I make good breakfasts.

End scene. (Thanks for sharing, Emily!)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How to find your dream editor

Photo by Nic's Events

Confession: This headline is a bald-faced lie. You will never find your dream editor. Nor should you find your dream editor. Why? Because your career as a working, professional artist should not depend on a single editor at all.

Rather, it's up to you to remember that writing is a business. And to sell your material, you need to find the best-fit editors (and publishing houses) for your work. Here are some points to keep in mind as you're researching potential editors:

* Before you waste money on postage, investigate each publishing house's preferred subject and themes. Learn which editors deal with which topics, and direct your work to them specifically.

* Editors are people, and people are unique. Each one will work differently and see different things in your work. Subjective? Absolutely. But that's not necessarily a negative. It means at least one person exists in the great wide publishing world who will recognize your ability, connect with your story, and help you further along the path.

* So an editor wants to work with you. Now what? Give editors 10x more than they ask for. This will build their trust in your ability to receive feedback, revise, and improve your material.

* Be communicative. Respond promptly, revise thoroughly, ask questions, and push back when necessary.

* And just when you think you're ridin' high on the Publish-Me Express ... your editor changes houses. Don't panic. See how it all shakes out. You stand a great chance of expanding your network (provided they're staying in the industry). As one editor pointed out, "We leave projects, not relationships." So if they have more authority at their new digs or develop more contacts, your work might find an even better home.

* Also, don't discount the associate/assistant editors who rise in their place. These folks will be hungry for books and eager to make their own mark at work. Your material might be just the ticket.

But let's be serious -- writers still have a vision of a dream editor in their head. And you know what? That's ok, because the best editors -- the ones who can shape your style and your career for the better -- do share certain inimitable qualities. To note:

* They ask questions. Good questions. Lots of them.

* They have access to lots of money to give books their best production and promotion.

* They have great relationships with the art director.

* They themselves have a discerning and trained eye for art & design.

* They are bulldogs, committed to making your work all it can be.

P.S. You're not off the hook, writers. The editor's job is to be the first reader. And while they're not expecting perfect manuscripts, it's your responsibility to submit the strongest manuscript possible. Plus, you must remain an active and involved partner in the process. Editors can't drag you to glory, even if they wanted to.

So we now know there are no perfect editors -- just as there are no perfect writers. But damned good ones live in both camps, so let's do our best to get together and make our work sing.

(This post is expanded from notes taken at the 'Working Together: Author/Illustrator/Editor' panel, part of the Nov. 2009 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference. My thanks to the panelists for their insights!)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Prayer #95: Magi Formula

Prayer #95: Magi Formula

The three wandering kings did not travel across a continent out of a sense of duty or obligation.

They did not leave their kingdoms because they liked stargazing.

They did not bring gifts to make a baby love them.

They sacrificed, and they risked, and they gave, because the reality of love incarnate compelled them.

That love is no less compelling or vital today. Yet I have no gold that befits royalty. I have no frankincense to waft to heaven. I have no myrrh to protect You in death. I have only me.

So please accept my one epiphany -- that I know and accept that You, my God, want nothing but me.

Let this truth direct my hesitant steps in hostile lands. Help me latch onto even a speck of light when I reach my darkest hours. May I return tenfold the gifts You've granted me -- not to make You love me, but to honor that You already love me.

Westward leading, still proceeding ...